How to Choose a Lifejacket

How To Choose the Right Personal Floatation Device (PFD)

If you are interested in any type of paddlesport, whether it’s kayaking, canoeing, or standup paddleboarding, one essential gear item remains the same: a personal floatation device, or PFD. And that absolute need goes for any body of water, whether you’re floating on a calm lake or running raging whitewater; a functional, well-fitting PFD should be the first piece of gear you buy. Too many variables can turn an errant capsize and swim into a fatality without one. It’s also a legal requirement to have a wearable, U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD for every paddler on your craft, plus federal law for children under 13 to be wearing one at all times. The good news is that there are many effective, comfortable and unobtrusive options that fit your specific paddling style, needs and budget. 

In this guide, you'll learn about:

  • Types of PFDs
  • PFD Designs 
  • Features To Consider
  • Fit and Sizing  
  • How To Choose the Right PFD

Types of PFDs

Though the Coast Guard also approves “lifejackets” (a term that describes all PFDs) for commercial use, we’ll focus on the recreational, wearable kind. That most often translates to a lifejacket classified as Type III or V, which provides buoyancy aid to paddlers but still requires movement to keep your face out of the water—and not one that’s too buoyant, designed purely to float a person face-up like you might see stowed on a ship. 

Type I: The highest-grade buoyancy PFD that will aid in turning a swimmer from a face-down position to a more vertical position on their back. This type will have the greatest chance of survival and is designed for off-shore boating.  

Type II: The second level of buoyancy PFD intended to turn a face-down swimmer to an upright position. These are typically the horse-collar style and best for near-shore activities. 

Type III: Buoyancy support for a conscious swimmer designed for sports like kayaking, canoeing, and SUP. This type, most popular for paddlesports, is not required to turn a face-down swimmer to an upright position and offers the best protection without restricting movement.

Type IV: Floatation aid designed to be thrown to a person overboard; not meant to be worn.

Type V: Type V is designed to provide buoyancy support for specific recreational activities, but often requires specialized knowledge (like inflation, or added safety features on rescue PFDs), so not as suitable for many types of paddling or commercial use. 

PFD Designs and Features

Type III and Type V PFDs are designed in two main styles:

 

  • Standard PFDs: Foam-filled PFDs are the standard and provide buoyancy at all times. These are the more popular and a better option for assured safety. 

 

Pros: Will support an unconscious swimmer; foam provides extra insulation in cold and windy conditions; versatile choice good for any type of active paddling, and both non-swimmers and expert paddlers alike.

Cons: Bulkier design can restrict torso movement; foam is hotter in warm conditions.

 

  • Inflatable PFDs: These PFDs have a rip cord that manually activates a CO2 cartridge for rapid inflation of a collar-like air chamber. They’re usually available in two styles: one worn suspender-like around the collar, and the other nested in a belt pack (which adds the need to put the inflated collar over your head once activated).

 

Pros: Compact and minimal design that provides floatation when needed; less bulk allows for maximum movement; cooler in hot conditions.

Cons: Requires an alert, conscious swimmer to inflate; not a good option for novice paddlers and non-swimmers; only available for adults; requires cartridge to be filled or replaced after each activation, plus air chamber to be repacked/rearmed, so not ideal for active paddlers who could be in the water multiple times during a paddling outing.

Foam Distribution:

Consider the sport you are buying the PFD for, and select the appropriate foam distribution. 

Standard back: Most PFDs have equally distributed foam front to back and feel less bulky all-around. Some manufacturers offer women’s specific models that feature contoured chest areas. 

Mesh back: These PFDs are designed for high-back seats often found on recreational canoes, touring kayaks and fishing kayaks. The mesh on the lower back makes for a more comfortable, ventilated ride. 

Thin back: Also designed for kayakers, the foam on a thin-back PFD is lighter in the back panel to comfortably fit a variety of seats.    

Entry:

Zip entry is a personal preference with a few options available.

Pullover: With no zip entry, these PFDs—considered the most minimal design—can be difficult to don by pulling them over the head.  

Front Zip: Front-entry PFDs are the most popular and simple entry with a zipper that opens down the front like a jacket. 

Side Zip: Side-entry PFDs open on one side under the arm part-way and are pulled over the head. These are a little trickier to put on than front zips, but more manageable than a pullover. 

Additional Features:

Color: Bright colors improve visibility in the water. Note any added reflective strips. 

Pockets: Consider the gear you want to stow and the pocket options. Some even include hand warming insulation. 

Ventilation: Check for built-in ventilation if you plan to paddle in warmer climates.  

Extras: Fishing-specific PFDs often include attachment points, fold-down work trays, and tool clips. Lash tabs are also important for rigging whistles, sheathed knives (added safety for whitewater) or light strobes (added safety for touring kayakers).

Fit and Sizing

It’s essential to get a proper fit for your PFD to work correctly. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the PFD should fit “comfortably snug” so it will not slip over the paddler’s head. If the paddler cannot tighten the straps enough to be snug, the vest is too big. Likewise, it is too small if a vest is too tight to buckle or does not have room to cinch the straps.  

Adult Sizing: The PFD size is measured by the chest width, not the paddler’s weight. To start, measure the circumference of your chest at the widest point and then check your size range with the manufacturer.  

Youth Sizing: Unlike adult PFDs, kids’ vests are sized by their weight and classified into three categories: infant (0 to 30 pounds), child (30 to 50 pounds), and youth (50 to 90 pounds). 

Personal Fit: Try the PFD on. While some vest panels might be the same size, the most significant difference in sizing will be how they adjust to your torso with available lengths of straps. Start by tightening the straps from the bottom up. Once snug, ask someone to pull up on the shoulders (this is how you could be rescued from the water). If the vest slips, it’s the wrong fit.  

Various brands or styles of PFDs may fit your body differently, and it might take a few tries to figure out which is the best for you. If possible, try the PFD on while wearing the clothing you typically use for paddling. You may want to even test it in the water for feel and float.  

How To Choose the Right PFD

Now that you understand the styles, design, and features to consider when buying a personal floatation device, ask yourself a few questions to determine your individual needs. 

How do you plan to use the PFD?

It won’t work if you’re not wearing it. And if there’s a chance you’ll be in the water more than once, or are actively paddling in moving water (think: whitewater or ocean paddlers who would wear a helmet), find a well-fitted standard PFD. 

Are you a strong swimmer? 

Great, you still need a life jacket. And if you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t consider an inflatable PFD that requires manual activation.

Do you prefer comfort and range of motion over safety and buoyancy?

You may want a low profile Type III PFD (popular with many whitewater and open-water paddlers using lots of dynamic strokes), or a manually inflating Type V life jacket (popular with many standup paddlers leashed to their board for backup, and kayak anglers doing more casting than paddling).  

Will you be paddling in serious heat?

Consider a mesh back PFD or manually inflating option.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.